August 20, 2009
CHICAGO (Aug.18)–Have you ever attended a real Labor Day celebration—the kind where the beer and the barbecue are the supporting players and the rights of working people are the stars of the show?
Well now’s your chance. At 2 p.m. on September 7, a grand mix of 20 labor unions, labor federations, civic organizations and historical associations will kick off an old-fashioned Labor Day fest. It’ll be food, fun, music, historical exhibits and old-fashioned political oratory—led by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn–praising the rise of the labor movement. WCPT talk-show host Dick Kay will serve as master of ceremonies.
And it all happens at the very spot where the U.S. labor movement got its baptism of fire—the former company-owned Town of Pullman, where the famous Pullman sleeping cars were built, on Chicago’s South Side.
“Historic Pullman is ground zero for rail labor,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Bob Guy. “It’s the company town that George M. Pullman built to keep his workers happy, sober and loyal—and to make sure they didn’t try to join unions. But when the financial panic of 1893 reduced demand for his sleeping cars, Mr. Pullman ignored his workers so he could focus on his bottom line.”
Pullman, Guy explained, responded to the panic by cutting his workers’ wages 25 per cent while continuing to charge them the same rent on his houses. The workers walked out, and railroad workers nationwide joined the action by cutting Pullman sleeping cars out of trains.
Federal intervention ended the strike in 1894, and its leader, Eugene V. Debs was jailed. Despite being prematurely snuffed out, however, the Pullman strike sparked tremendous growth in the American labor movement.
“Within a few years the United Mine Workers began a westward sweep that organized virtually the entire U.S. coal industry, the sleeping-car porters were organized in the 1920s, and by the 1930s the United Auto Workers was organizing the car-manufacturing industry,” Guy said. “Pullman was the spark that ignited three decades of labor progress.”
Organized by the Illinois Labor History Society and sponsored by the Illinois AFL-CIO, the Chicago Federation of Labor and 18 other organizations, the Pullman Labor Day Celebration is free to all and requires no reservations. Simply take I-94, the Calumet/Bishop Ford Freeway to Exit 66A (111th St.) and drive four blocks west to the Pullman Historic District.
Tours of one of the restored Pullman factory buildings as well as typical Pullman workers’ houses will be available.
“It’s a great place to picnic and celebrate with your fellow union members,” Guy said. “George Pullman may have lost his cool when he lowered his workers’ wages, but he was a sound thinker and planner when he built what he called his ‘model town:’ He hired the best architect of the time, Solon S. Beman, to design the workers’ houses, and he hired the best planners to lay out the streets and parks and landscaping.”
Although it’s been almost totally restored, Pullman today is not a museum, Guy pointed out.
“It’s a historic yet very real contemporary Chicago neighborhood, with families of all incomes and all ages owning and living in over a thousand townhouses that once were the personal property of George M Pullman,” he said. “It still looks like 1894, except there are no more gas lights and no more horses.
“I urge all UTU members in the area to join the big Labor Day party at Pullman, celebrate our union heritage, and enjoy the beauty and charm of this remarkable restored community.”